Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Bounty (1984)

Director: Roger Donaldson                       Writer: Robert Bolt
Film Score: Vangelis                               Cinematography: Arthur Ibbetson
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Mel Gibson, Laurence Oliver and Daniel Day-Lewis

A much maligned version of Mutiny on the Bounty, probably because of the era it was made more than the content, The Bounty is to me the most satisfying filmed version of them all. Unlike Charles Laughton’s crazed and maniacal Bligh from the 1935 version, or Trevor Howard’s more sadistic portrayal from 1962, Anthony Hopkins plays him simply as a bad captain in terms of his inability to lead his men. At the same time, the source material is not Charles Nordhoff’s trilogy, but instead Richard Hough’s book Captain Bligh and Mr. Christian, which views the story through the relationship between the two men. And in that respect it makes for a much more well-rounded film.

The story is told in flashback, from Bligh’s point of view during his trial, overseen by Laurence Olivier. They call into question Bligh’s motives and actions, but ultimately acquit him, unfortunately not with the implied disapproval of the other two films. The cast is an all-star extravaganza by today’s standards, but at the time most of the actors were very early in their careers. The worst criticism is usually directed at Mel Gibson, but I think that’s unfair. Personally, I don’t really care for Gibson. But that said, some of his films are among my favorites, primarily the historical ones, Gallipoli, Braveheart and The Patriot. This film fits right into that group with ease. And his youth at the time is perfect for the character. It’s his youth and inexperience that allow him to be so blinded by his love for Tevaite Vernette that it takes very little for him to be turned against the captain.

Unlike the previous two films, the pressure on Bligh seems far more realistic. He is desperate to make a name for himself with the admiralty. The mission to Tahiti for breadfruit seems just the ticket. He enlists the young Fletcher Christian to sail with him, hoping for a confederate onboard to ensure stability. The great thing about the story is how Bligh seems desperate to appease the men, and when this doesn’t earn him the respect he feels entitled to, swings the other way to unreasonable measures in the name of the law. This back and forth between the two extremes is what ultimately undermines his authority. He struggles within himself, but he can’t figure out how to get discipline restored without resorting to violence . . . and so he does, with predictable consequences.

Having been made in the eighties, film is naturally saddled with a synthesized soundtrack by Vangelis, whose score for Chariots of Fire won him an Oscar and was the fashion of the day but has since become little more than a joke. Roger Donaldson is an Australian director who has done some interesting films, including No Way Out and Cocktail in the eighties, and the brilliant Thirteen Days in 2000. His direction of this film is leisurely at times, something that has set him up for criticism, but it really works in this case. There is never a sense of things dragging. And it’s important, to allow the pressure to work not only on Bligh and Christian, but for the audience to want to stay in Tahiti as well. Daniel Day-Lewis is great as the first mate whom Bligh recklessly replaces with Gibson, and Liam Neeson does a nice job as the leader of a small band of rebels. Overall, The Bounty is a very satisfying historical drama that still holds up despite its eighties pedigree.

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